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Cell phone tower to be built in botanical sanctuary

Standing Rock Sioux members fear impact on health, ceremonies

PORCUPINE, N.D. - The Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council voted July 2 not to relocate a 197-foot-tall cell phone tower that will be erected in the watershed of the Cannonball River, west of the village of Porcupine. Tribal members had objected to its placement near a sweat lodge and bald eagle nesting ground and within the boundaries of a botanical sanctuary. The tower is one of 29 that will be installed around the reservation by 2009.

The vote was four in favor of moving the tower to a less sensitive spot and six against, the tribal chairman's office confirmed July 3. One council member abstained. Chairman Ron His Horse Is Thunder, Hunkpapa Lakota, did not respond to requests for a comment. Jesse Taken Alive, Hunkpapa Lakota, tribal council member-at-large and a resident of McLaughlin, S.D., who made the motion to relocate the tower, called the vote ''a disappointing outcome.''

The project was originally approved in early 2005 as a way to upgrade communications

- particularly for police and other emergency services - throughout the nation's 2.3 million rural acres in North and South Dakota. The towers, along with outbuildings and access roads, will be built by Turtle Island Telecommunications, a Native-owned firm, and eventually owned by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The sanctuary, a refuge for traditional medicine plants, is part of a continent-wide network and is the only one in the United States on tribal land. ''I told the company building the towers from the get-go that there are many important plants there, including some not found anywhere else on the reservation,'' said Linda Jones, Catawba, an ethnobotanist and faculty member at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates. ''We know radiation changes cell structure, so these plants will change. Can people continue to use them as medicine?''

Elder Kenny Painte Sr., Lakota, from Solen, N.D., said he had gone on vision quests in the botanical sanctuary, which he called ''a place of cultural and spiritual significance.'' He also described people coming from all over the country to be healed in the sweat lodge. In his opinion, construction of the nearby tower meant ''cultural genocide of the seven sacred rites of my people.''

Taken Alive expressed similar sentiments. ''The last thing I'd want is to have one of our important rites or a ceremonial ground impacted,'' he said. ''I am a practitioner of our traditional Lakota ways, and I think that's a terrible precedent.''

The tower's potential effects on human health have also been causing increasing apprehension, as tribal members have become aware of studies linking cell phone tower radiation with brain damage, cancer, diabetes and other illnesses and have heard about calls for more research by several international consortia of scientists and doctors. ''I've informed myself about these issues, and I'm worried about my children; my father, who's battling cancer; and everyone who comes to visit us,'' said Lynelle Bahm, Lakota, whose home is about 500 feet from the Porcupine tower site.

Aubrey Skye, Hunkpapa Lakota, filed an unsuccessful injunction to stop construction in May.

''People need to make an informed choice,'' said Skye, a Porcupine resident. ''In initial discussions with tribal members, improvement of telephone service was stressed, not any potential harm. What are we going to do when we get cancer? Use our great cell phone service to call an ambulance?''

His wife, Monica Skye, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, criticized the environmental assessment that was done for the project. ''It wasn't a full environmental impact statement, as you would expect for a project of this magnitude,'' she said. ''When they came to the botanical sanctuary, they just drove through in their vehicle, squashing medicine plants.''

Arthur Firstenberg, an expert on wireless technology who visited Standing Rock at the invitation of Porcupine residents, noted that he didn't see the word ''radiation'' in the document: ''How could an environmental assessment, on a project whose only purpose is to produce microwave radiation, not mention the expected environmental effects of microwave radiation?''

Other experts expressed related concerns, including Chellis Glendinning, a psychologist who studies the side effects of technology; activist Charmaine White Face, Oglala, coordinator of Defenders of the Black Hills; and Libby Kelley, a specialist on Native health issues.

Dennis Painte, an enrolled tribal member, was an official of Porcupine District when it - along with the nation's other seven districts - voted to approve the towers in 2005. These endorsements were then ratified by the tribal council. ''We had no information about the possible ill effects of the towers when we approved them,'' said Painte. ''We simply thought it was a wonderful step forward, technologically - no discussion. Now some districts would like to rescind their consent.''

Prior to the July 2 council meeting, Taken Alive had hoped the tribe would hold public information meetings and reconsider its options. ''Back in 2005, when we approved the project, we were unaware of potential harm,'' he said. ''Better communication is a huge need here, but we have to consider all the alternatives, including more landlines, fiber optics and so on.''

''Progress has taken us back, and it's causing self-destruction. I'm scared for the kids,'' Kenny Painte said. ''We have honored the politicians by going to them. Now we have to turn to the people. We'll be working on putting together a referendum to take to enrolled members. This is their land, but they never had a say-so.''